Stabilitas or Mobilitas?

by Stephen J. Baker, appearing in Volume 26

Vitruvius covered the whole range of architectural concerns when he coined the phrase “Utilitas, Venustas, Firmitas” around 15 BC.1 Utilitas (utility) refers to convenience and commodity of use. Venustas (beauty) naturally involves the aesthetics. Firmitas (stability) refers to the strength of construction. Vitruvius further expands on firmitas by stating, “Durability will be assured when foundations are carried down to the solid ground and materials wisely and liberally selected.”2 The terms “firmness,” “durability,” and “stability” are synonymous and often interchangeable. However, the term stabilitas is more aptly applied when describing sacred architecture for two reasons: it is a basic human need and it is a foundational mark of the Catholic Church.

Stabilitas is a Basic Human Need

Humans have a deeply rooted need for a sense of place, belonging, and home. “The soul is no traveller,” notes Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance, “the wise man stays at home with the soul, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still.”3 The soul seeks to be stationary and at home. Stabilitas describes a place that has the quality of being securely and immovably fixed in place. Humans have understood the permanence of place for centuries due to the physical and technological limitations of one’s mobility.



Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Denver, Colorado. Photo: Stephen J. Baker

By the turn of the twentieth century, man’s mobility went through significant changes, and with it grew a “new spirit.” This new spirit was in no doubt driven by the vast increase in one’s mobility due to advancements of machines. Culture and art searched diligently to find ways to express this newfound spirit of the age. Modern architects championed new ideas centered on movement, such as the free plan, curtain walls, pilotis, and ramps. Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier designed houses and buildings inspired by ocean liners. Frank Lloyd Wright captured America’s love for the automobile in his designs and ideas. Modernists, whether consciously or not, disliked design principles that went contrary to the spirit of mobility—ideas such as stability, centrality, and symmetry. Their true intent revealed itself when Wright, at an American Institute of Architects convention in 1952, declared a “war on architecture as a box.”4 Today’s postmodern era consists of internet super-highways, hotspots, Wi-Fi, social networking, avatars, email, chat, texting, cyber cafés, antennas of every nature, super-mega-everything, and a whole multitude of technologies that allow for even greater mobilitas; a mobilitas virtualis (virtual mobility). The hyper-modern world is a hyped-up version of the former modern era.

Even though mobility has increased and geographical location has physically become less relevant, human beings increasingly insist on some sense of place. As Professor David Morley at Goldsmiths University of London states, “Also contrary to the claim that networked mobility overcomes geography, is the prevalence of the question, ‘Where are you?’ by which many mobile phone conversations begin.”5 This demonstrates that one can virtually be anywhere, but at the same time humans have the deeply rooted need to know where they are in the world. This reality cannot be denied, and sacred architecture plays a prominent role in providing for the need of a sense of place.

The triumph over the limitations in mobility is taking a toll on one’s sense of sacred space. The sense of place has never been more relevant. As Gerald Schlabach, associate professor of theology at the University of Saint Thomas, so wisely puts matters at the end of Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age: “It is not by abandoning one’s tradition or superficially adopting others’ traditions that the gift of an enlarged community becomes possible in an age of globalization. It is rather by living fully and authentically within one’s tradition, by practicing a form of stability that true community flourishes in an unstable age.”6 Humans find stabilitas by living fully and authentically within one’s sacred tradition.

The human need for stabilitas is responsible in part for the rising acceptance of architectural movements like New Classicism and New Urbanism. These design principles find their roots in tradition, order, and stability. Modernism succeeded in its war on architecture as a box, but at the cost of denying the basic human need for stability. Part of this resurgence of traditional (stable) building methods is rooted in the 1970s as a response to Modernism’s failures, as explained by Dr. Mark Gelernter at the University of Colorado Denver: “People sought cultural roots after the uproar [of the revolutionary 1960s], and the sense that they belonged to something stable and meaningful. Architects began to appreciate that the traditional architectural styles expressed desired continuities, not revolutions.”7 In a world of ever-increasing fluctuation, designers are ever more seeking a sense of belonging, a sense of permanence of place, and a sense of the sacred. Noted Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz reinforces this when he states, “Human identity presupposes the identity of place, and that stabilitas loci, therefore is a basic human need.”8 Rebel as one may, human nature cannot be avoided.



Chapel on the Rock, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena, Allenspark, Colorado. Photo: Stephen J. Baker

Stabilitas is a Foundational Mark of the Catholic Church

The principle of stabilitas can be found throughout the history of the Church. In the sixth century, Saint Benedict introduced the principle of stabilitas loci (stay in one place) as one of the cornerstones of Western monasticism. On the manner of admitting brethren, Saint Benedict states, “Let him who is received promise in the oratory, in the presence of all, before God and His saints, stability.”9 This addition to his Rule provided the members with a profound sense of meaning in the world. He added this vow in the midst of the declining years of the Roman Empire and the breakdown of the family social unit. Saint Benedict sought to establish for his monasteries a stronger community and an extended family. To Saint Benedict the virtue of stabilitas loci seemed utterly lost in other established orders. As the British Benedictine George Cyprian Alston states: “[Certain early monastics] were yet without that element of stability insisted upon by Saint Benedict, viz: the ‘common life’ and family spirit. In adapting a system essentially Eastern to Western conditions, Saint Benedict gave it coherence, stability, and organization, and the verdict of history is unanimous in applauding the results of such adaptation.”10 The principal vow of stabilitas allowed Benedict’s monasteries to flourish during the turmoil of the sixth century. Sacred architecture can learn from this and flourish as well in an ever-increasing world of mobilitas.

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, stabilitas is foundational to the Catholic Church. He states in his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed: “The Church has four essential conditions, in that she is one, holy, catholic, and strong and firm (fortis et firma).”11 Charles Cardinal Journey expands upon this by writing: “Her solidity, which comes of the foundations on which she is built—namely, Christ and the Apostles—appears outwardly in the fact that neither persecutions, errors, nor the assaults of the devils have been able to overturn her. The Vatican Council consecrated this doctrine when it recalled that the Church, by reason of her sanctity, her catholic unity, and her triumphant perpetuity—invictam stabilitatem (unflinching stability)—is herself a great and standing motive of credibility and an irrefragable witness of her own divine mission.”12

Church buildings, as symbols of faith, must stand as a witness of her own divine mission and demonstrate her “triumphant perpetuity” and “unflinching stability.” This concept is repeated throughout Church history. The First Vatican Council teaches in Pastor aeternus “the Church is built on a rock and will continue to stand firm until the end of time (ad finem saeculorum usque firma stabit).”13 Stabilitas reinforces the Church’s eternal and sacred nature.



Saint John Vianney Seminary and Saint John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, Denver, Colorado. Photo: Archdiocese of Denver

Christianity has a distinct perspective on the notion of place because Christians accept the words in the Gospel of John— “the Word was God (Gk. Logos)” (Jn 1:1).14 The reality of the Incarnation establishes a distinct world view. The Gospel writer further reinforces this with “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). The literal interpretation is “He pitched his tent among us.” The pitching of a tent requires a dwelling to be fixed in place, and through the Incarnation, God fixes Himself in place within humanity and manifested Himself in physical form. By taking the physical nature of man in the past, and by taking on physical nature in the present through the Eucharist, Christ became and becomes present here on Earth. He provides a bearing point from which the Christian can venture. For the Christian, there is a center, a fixed place, an axis mundi (a point of connection between heaven and earth), and a permanence of sacred place. This realization provides sacred order to the Christian’s soul. He orders his world around this knowledge and his soul is no longer left to wander through the desert. The Incarnation convinces him that while traveling in the world of ever-increasing mobilitas, he is at home still. The Christian world is not perpetually in fluctuation, and sacred architecture as a reflection of the Christian’s world view must sit firmly on the foundation of Christ.

The use of the term stabilitas versus firmitas implies a greater sense of actively withstanding current forces; by definition, “stability” is “The ability of an object…to maintain equilibrium or resume its original, upright position after displacement, as by the sea or strong winds.”15 So when discussing sacred architecture in today’s strong winds of increasing mobility, one might say, “Utilitas, Venustas, Stabilitas.